“The Empire Business”: Breaking Bad, Capitalism, and the Family

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” – Edward Abbey

 

Last year on AMC’s Breaking Bad, during episode 506: “Buyout,” Walter White has a conversation with his partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman. Jesse is trying to convince Walt to retire from their illegal meth operation. They have an offer on the table to sell their supply of methylamine to a rival organization for $5-million each. It’s more money than either of them ever imagined they’d make when they began, and more than enough to comfortably set them up for life. Walt rejects Jesse’s plea to take the deal and drop out of the business by telling a story about his past, the content of which spells out Walt’s true motivation and illuminates the thesis of the show.

He explains that back in grad-school he co-founded a company with two friends, Gray Matter. Walt even came up with the name, but he took a buyout before it became profitable because of an affair with one of the other co-founders. The amount he took: $5,000. He tells Jesse that today the company is worth billions and that he looks up its value every week, knowing that he could have been immensely wealthy had he not sold his stake in the business. Walt scoffs at the measly $5-million buyout Jesse is advocating. “I’m in the empire business,” he proclaims.

Though it may have taken five seasons for Walt to clearly and honestly express his motivation to another character, the audience should have already had a pretty good idea of what motivates him. It’s amazing how many seeds of who Walter White would later become were planted in the very first episode.

At the beginning of the series, Walter White is an overqualified, middle-aged high school chemistry teacher. He has a teenage son with cerebral palsy, Walter Jr., and is in a relatively stable marriage with Skyler, who is pregnant with an unplanned baby. They live in a modest house, but are having trouble making ends meet. Their rusting water heater leaks and turns their water brown, Skyler lectures Walt about using the wrong credit card at Staples, the glove box in his car is broken and won’t stay shut, and in order to make some extra cash he works a part-time job at a car wash after school. Though hired to work the register, his boss forces him to wash cars outside, where he’s humiliated by one of his students (who drives a much more expensive car than Walt does). At home his sex life appears to be passionless; Skyler seems more involved in selling their household items on Ebay than sharing an intimate moment in the bedroom, and Walt has trouble getting “inspired” anyway. To make matters worse, Walt has a loudmouth, alpha-male brother-in-law, Hank, who has a flashy job as a DEA agent, which is infinitely more impressive to Walt Jr. than his gig as a chemistry teacher.

Right away, we can see that Walter is a 50 year old man whose life didn’t turn out how he envisioned. He feels beaten down, stretched thin, passed over, cheated, emasculated, exploited, unfulfilled, and even his great talent, chemistry, falls on the deaf ears of his students who couldn’t care less. And then the cancer hits.

But even before his diagnosis he felt like a failure, unable to adequately provide for his family, or, more specifically, to fulfill the role expected of a man in this society. Learning that his life will be unexpectedly cut short, coupled with the knowledge that he’s going to leave his family bankrupt, is the final slap in the face, the last humiliating insult life can dish out.

When Walt partners up with Jesse, one of his former students, to make meth, his stated motivation is his family. He says that before he dies he wants to be able to take care of his loved ones. Practical things, mostly. He wants Skyler to be able to pay off the mortgage, to cover college educations for his children, and medical bills for the whole family. At one point early on he even calculates an exact figure of how much money he needs to make in order to provide the essentials for his family over the next 20 years ($737-thousand), and then he’d quit selling drugs once he reaches that number.

Becoming a meth manufacturer is morally dubious, but even though the audience might disagree with his choice, given the state of Walt’s life, it’s understandable why he would make that decision. At first, anyway. After all, Walt is a victim of the capitalist system. He has been dealt a terrible set of circumstances in a world based on exploitation, and he is virtually powerless to change them by legitimate means. Though he’s still a member of the comparatively better off middle class, the anger he feels about having to scrounge for every dollar while being trapped in an monotonous cycle, his life passing by day by day without any joy or fulfillment, is legitimate, and it’s compounded by the importance placed on the “traditional” patriarchal family unit, as well the pressure and expectation put on men to provide for their families under the capitalist system. A man who can’t isn’t really a man, goes the thinking.

By the end of the first episode Walt has survived his first foray into the dangerous drug underworld, and while it was life threatening, terrifying, and violent, for the first time in years he feels invigorated. He goes home and sleeps with his wife. Skyler, surprised by his sudden sexual advance, asks, “Walt, is that you?!” as she gasps for breath and the credits roll.

And there it is. That’s really what it’s all about for Walt. While he may say that he just wants to support his family before he dies, what he really wants is to finally be a man, a real man, and to get all the privileges that go with that. His family is just the excuse he uses, the lie he tells himself to justify his actions. He wants to shed the image of the nerdy science teacher who can’t take care of his family. He wants authority and power. He wants respect. The tone is set for the rest of the series as Walt seeks revenge against the society that screwed him over, undervalued his worth, and overlooked his potential. From the moment of his diagnosis forward Walt will take what he wants and he will prove to any doubters that he’s man enough for anything, by any horrific means necessary.

Later on, when Walt and Skyler need to buy a business to launder their drug money, Walt is determined to purchase the very same car wash that wounded his pride. He refuses to let the previous owner keep his framed dollar on the wall, and out of spite Walt uses that dollar to buy a soda from the vending machine. It’s clear that Walt is more interested in getting revenge than providing for his family.

Though while Walter was right to feel angry and bitter about the unfortunate hand he’s been dealt, his mistake is that instead of channeling that frustration into exposing and tearing down an unjust system, a system that exploits and oppresses millions around the world, he goes about trying to place himself atop that system of exploitation. He doesn’t want out of the system of oppression, he wants in. He doesn’t care about the plight of other oppressed people, he only cares about his own misfortune, and as a result, while he is attempting to rebel against the capitalist system, he adopts that system’s own ideology, and thus dooms himself to failure. As he said, he’s in the “empire business.” He wants to conquer, to dominate, to bend the world to his will, and enrich himself without limit for the sake of obtaining power, everyone else be damned. His idea of revenge isn’t to bring down capitalism, he wants to become the ultimate capitalist, and in this way, his successful rebellion against the system is just as bad as failure.

The show, in effect, becomes an allegory of capitalist-imperialism, clearly indicting a system that allows a tiny minority to profit off the misery of the vast majority. As Walt delves deeper into the criminal underworld he increasingly sees people as expendable pawns, who he either manipulates to further his interests, or eliminates. Early on, Walt has great difficulty bringing himself to murder, but by the end of season 5, he barely gives it a second thought. Nothing can stand in the way of his growing empire, and being in a position of power numbs his empathy for other human beings.

Walt’s rise to power mirrors the classic capitalist model. In order to survive as a capitalist you must expand or face being overtaken by your competitors. If you don’t ruthlessly expand your business, someone else will, and you lose everything. Likewise, every time Walt is forced to make a choice between backing out or doubling down, he always doubles down. Every time he comes up against someone with more power than he does, instead of retreating he systematically destroys them and takes their place. First Krazy 8, then Tuco, Gus, and finally Mike, until only he is left holding the keys to the kingdom.

It’s also important to note that it’s always other people who pay for Walt’s crimes. He makes a huge profit off of the poor people addicted to his product, with absolutely no regard for the damage done to society. In fact, he thinks of drug addicts in the worst possible terms, as if they’re less than human, even though he’s more than willing to exploit them for his own gain. In his wake, thousands ruin their lives using meth, many people are murdered, and he’s even responsible for a major air disaster. The damage ripples through society while he profits and gains power. It’s a perfect allegory for the way wealth flows from the exploited masses to a tiny elite, and shows how under capitalism, if you’re willing to brutally exploit, oppress, and destroy other people you can achieve a great measure of what’s considered “success.” And Walt is very successful by that standard.

The family is also a major theme in Breaking Bad, and it can’t be overstated how important the concept of the “traditional” patriarchal family is to capitalism. It’s a model that by design teaches individuals to value the well-being of their relatives over those of everyone else in society. This may not seem like a big problem at first glance, but the net result is a society where everyone does what’s best for their family, even if it comes at the expense of everyone else. Society becomes about competition, rather than collaboration, and people often abandon their moral or political principles when faced with a choice that might negatively impact their family. It’s an institution that keeps the masses pacified as individuals become preoccupied with maintaining the well-being of their family unit, preventing the people from uniting to struggle for justice for all, relatives or not.

Walt frequently uses the concept of family as a justification for his actions. “When we do what we do for good reasons, there’s nothing to worry about, and what better reason is there than family?” Walt assures Skyler, who is struggling with the collateral damage inflicted upon her former boss, Ted Beneke. He’s paralyzed while trying to flee from a pair of goons Skyler dispatched to force him to pay off his debt to the IRS, preventing the government from catching on to the Whites’ illegal drug money. Skyler and Walt do what is best for their family, and the result is devastating to other people. Breaking Bad brings this issue to the forefront, and the fact that Walt is so frighteningly at peace with this justification should force the audience to call into question its own morality. How much damage would you be willing to inflict upon society in order to protect your loved ones?

Given the state of the world today, considering where the lines of battle are being drawn in society, it’s possible that Breaking Bad is currently the most politically relevant show on television. America’s capitalist-imperialist empire is beginning to rot from the inside, but before it crumbles the establishment will use all available options to maintain power, brutally suppressing the masses if necessary. Breaking Bad has clearly been an allegory for the moral vacancy of obtaining power through the capitalist system, and it shows the horrific consequences of going down that path. Is it worth it to enrich yourself if you destroy the world in the process? Walter White says ‘yes,’ and his example should be a blueprint for how not to think and for what not to do.

The problem with building an empire is that there’s no end point. There’s always someone else to conquer, more power to be gained. This is where Walt lives now. He built his capitalist empire with brutal violence, and enriched himself beyond his wildest dreams, but when is it enough power? When is it enough money? It’s worth noting that Walt does not stop producing meth after he surpasses his goal of $737-thousand.

When you’re on a mission to prove to the world how great, powerful, and manly you really are, there’s no logical stopping point, and you expand or die. You keep growing for the sake of growth because you have to, just like the cancer that resides inside Walt’s body, until it spreads too far, consumes all life, and kills its host from the inside. That’s what has happened to America. Breaking Bad might be the Moby Dick of this era, with Walter White as the new version of Captain Ahab, and Gray Matter, Walt’s long lost opportunity for wealth and power, as the illusive white whale, taunting him, luring him further into the void, and hastening his destruction.

The show is crafted with such care, and such attention to detail. The acting is impeccable, the cinematography unmatched, and the music completely absorbing. Bryan Cranston (Walter) and Aaron Paul (Jesse) are obviously the standout actors on the show, but the entire ensemble plays their parts with great nuance. Taken as a whole, Breaking Bad is a masterpiece unlike anything else on television, and it’s clearly more than just an entertaining story about a chemistry teacher turned drug lord, though it is that, too.

What it might lack in realism it more than makes up for in allegory. It’s telling us something about who we’ve become as a society. It’s warning us that next time, when we’re faced with a choice between taking a step back or doubling down on a misguided course of action, when we hear that voice inside our head, the lie we tell ourselves that rationalizes evil as long as we do it for a “good reason,” like protecting our families no matter the cost to others, we need to ignore that lie and take that step back. At some point the chain has to be broken and we need to put the greater good ahead of our own individual interests.

Walter White is more than just an isolated cautionary tale about drugs and violence. He represents something bigger. He symbolizes the attitude of America on the global stage and he wields its greatest weapon, capitalist-imperialism, to benefit himself, to give himself a sense of worth and pride, and he justifies his murderous greed by claiming he’s just doing it for the good of his family. That lie is the American way. Underneath that thinly veiled altruistic excuse is a naked desire to dominate others for the sake unfettered growth and power.

If you watch Breaking Bad carefully, you’ll notice that Walt is just itching for the chance to tell his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank that it’s actually him, the mild mannered chemistry teacher that everyone’s always overlooked and laughed at, who’s been behind the legendary blue meth all along. It’s that reckless desire for masculine pride that causes Walt’s empire to swell beyond control, and it’s what will cause his inevitable downfall, even if it’s everyone else who pays the price for his crimes.

There’s a brief but significant moment of note toward the end of the first episode. Walt is standing on a desolate road in the middle of the desert. Sirens are approaching and he believes he’s about to be caught. He pulls out a gun, puts it under his chin, and pulls the trigger. He hears the click, but no bullet is fired. The safety is on. He fumbles with the gun and accidentally fires a shot into the ground. After feeling the force of the gun in his hand he loses his nerve and goes on living. The sirens turn out to be firetrucks, not police, and Walt is relieved. In hindsight, knowing the monster he will later become, it’s hard not to think that the imaginary world of the show would have been a better place had the safety been off. But the great thing about art is that it can help us understand the real world. Walter White’s fictitious journey illuminates a very real and inconvenient truth about our society, and being deprived of his horrific transformation on Breaking Bad would be a major loss, not only culturally, but politically, because it demonstrates how deeply out of order our priorities are under capitalism.

:::Please see follow-up piece about Hank not being “the good guy”:::

26 thoughts on ““The Empire Business”: Breaking Bad, Capitalism, and the Family

  1. Pretty decent analysis, but getting the car wash–and specifically that car wash–was Skylar’s idea. Humiliating Bogdan was just the icing on the cake.

    • Thanks for reading. And you’re right that it was Skylar’s idea, but once Walt found out what bogdan said to her, the whole thing about needing to send his woman to do his work for him, he was fully on board and wanted revenge. Humiliating Bogdan became his objective at that point. It was much more than just “icing.”

  2. I would note that “blood is thicker than water” — the importance of family, though, has more to do with evolution than capitalism.

    • Family in the abstract, perhaps, but the “traditional” patriarchal family unit is a cornerstone of modern capitalist philosophy. Check out Jeff Sharlet’s book “The Family” to see how closely the patriarchal family is linked to top-down capitalism among Christian fundamentalists, for example. They go hand-in-hand, each providing the model for the other.

  3. I see a lot of what you say that has merit. But at the heart of your writing is a belief that capitalism is the big exploiter in the world…the evil actor in most men’s lives. It’s not a mature view of the way the world works. Witness the expansive standard of living in capitalist societies, and the failure of planned economies to provide similarly. The sole advantage of planned societies is that no one is allowed to fall quite so low…no one really needs to try very hard to assure a mediocre standard of living. But in a planned society the material delights possible in a capitalist society are mostly reserved to the few ruling elites.
    Some other comments:
    1) The writers of “Breaking Bad had to twist the story to make Walter appear sufficiently a victim with regard to his crushing medical expenses. As a school teacher in this country Walt had a good medical plan provided to him. It was by the device of pursuit of the absolute best medical care that the medical bills even became a factor. The medical bills were similarly contrived for Hank after his shooting.
    2) You say that Walt is a victim of the capitalist that requires men provide for their families. I would point out that men have been providing for their families for eons before the development of capitalist economies. Only in the modern economies of the last century has the state stepped in to provide assistance when fathers are knocked out of the picture.
    3) I agree that what drives Walter is his quest for respect. This is a central element of the tale.
    4) Rebellion: You say that Walter’s rebellion is against the capitalist system that exploited him. I would say instead that Walter’s complaint was with a world that had failed to recognize his great merit. Earlier, as he neared the recognition at Grey Matter that he felt was richly deserved, something went wrong and he went crashing down the social ladder to the middling levels of US society. It was that fall that made Walter a seething rebel. Not so much outwardly, in his case. He presented a genial face to the world. What made Walter into a monster was the wounded pride caused by his fall from grace…his fall from the heights he believed was his due.
    5) Empathy: There is nothing about the attainment of power that makes people lose empathy for others. The loss of empathy occurs early in life when we develop a false pride in ourselves…one based not on real accomplishments, but rather a belief that we have been endowed with a greatness by birth or title or the false assurances of greatness by doting parents…or even by a belief in our supremacy engendered by weak parents or absent fathers. This lack of empathy and false pride is what we see in a child that others characterize as “spoiled”. It is in childhood that monsters are created, not by latter accomplishments and achievement of power.

    • I appreciate you taking the time to respond, though I can’t say I agree with much of what you said. I’ll try to go through your reply point by point.

      -Capitalism is absolutely “the big exploiter in the world.” It’s an economic system that is inherently based on exploitation, and there’s really no way around that fact. It’s a system where an elite class profits off the labor of everyone else. It’s a system based on the private acquisition of socially produced wealth, which is exploitation by definition.

      -The standard of living is higher in developed capitalist nations because of the exploitation of the third world. If you manipulate and oppress the third world in order to acquire their resources you can enrich yourself while keeping them poor. “Planned societies” didn’t “fail” so much as they were defeated by extremely powerful capitalist forces. And I have a feeling that you and I have a very different idea of what would constitute success anyway. The goal shouldn’t be to produce “material delights”, it should be to build a vibrant culture based on equality.

      1) If Walt had used the doctors available on his school system insurance plan… he’d have been dead pretty quickly, since they had told him his cancer was inoperable. His expensive doctor pursued an aggressive treatment plan that saved his life, but his original doctor wasn’t going to go down that road. It’s a strong indictment of the system to show that if you’re rich you can purchase amazing healthcare, but if you’re just an average dude you’re pretty much screwed, even if you have relatively “good coverage.”

      2) It’s not so much that it’s a “requirement,” but rather that it’s a social expectation. Walt’s manhood is on the line because of the way capitalism and the patriarchal family institution marginalizes and oppresses women while putting the burden on men to “provide.” Of course, that kind of attitude ignores all the ways women “provide” for their families even while they’re being oppressed, but the point is that Walt is facing a social stigma if he can’t “man up.”

      4) You’re right that Walt want’s respect, but the respect he feels entitled to would have bought a very comfortable lifestyle. He wants the respect, yes, but he wants all the privileges that go with that, and those privileges are based on capitalist exploitation. When he was denied the respect, he was also denied his “right” to life a life of luxury, a dream life that capitalism teaches us to covet.

      5) When you being to enrich yourself by exploiting others, you start to see people as commodities, pawns to help you gain more wealth and power. When you start to see other people in those terms, you dehumanize them, and you lose empathy. Before Walt began his transformation he clearly had empathy for others. He thought long and hard about killing Krazy-8 for example, and he even made up his mind to let him go, even at the risk of his family getting killed, until he realized he took part of the plate to use as a weapon. In season 5, on the other hand, he orders the death of 9 people like it’s just an everyday part of life, in an act of ruthless self-protection. He clearly loses empathy and his respect for human life as he gains more power. The way he sees other people is a direct result of his position. Before he was a capitalist-imperialist, he didn’t see people as commodities in the way he does later on.

      • Government is absolutely “the big exploiter in the world.” Without the strong arm of government…corporations would not have the means to exploit 3rd world countries….War is a Racket by Smedley D. Butler is a good example of this.
        And did Stalin not exploit all of Eastern Europe? Planned societies fail because a lack of a price system prevents efficient recource allocation. I would refer to Ludwig von Mises’ Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth.

        • Vinny,

          I think you have it backwards. You seem to think it’s government that enables corporations to exploit the world, but in reality, the corporate state has simply purchased government. The corporate elite own the political system, and they use it as a shield to protect their wealth and power. The government is the way it is because it was built to protect the elite, and it does a very good job in that sense. Government is just the tool the corporate elite use to reinforce and protect their power. So, I think you’re putting the cart before the horse. And about “planned societies,” again, they fail, primarily, because of the strong, determined effort of established capitalist power to defeat them.

    • Excellent comments Winomaster. I only learned about Breaking Bad two days ago, and watched the 1st 3 episodes — might watch a few more. Reading the reviews around the net the consensus view is as the original good review here — “capitalism bad”. But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Crime and exploitation have been around a long time before capitalism, and per the experience of planned economies, the same is true there — but on a larger scale. Ambition, greed, familialism — all these things have been around for thousands of years. It is a logical error to ascribe to capitalism the excesses of patriarchy. And because this is such a fundamental error, one is led to distrust every review of Breaking Bad that makes this facile and easy charge. “Coffee house revolutionaries” indeed, or in this case, “chat room revolutionaries” . . .

      Toronto, Canada

  4. Pingback: Breaking Bad Follow-Up: Hank Isn't "The Good Guy" | F E D R E V

  5. The premise as you describe it sounds interesting, and you write very well… but I had to stop part way down because I don’t want too many spoilers — I think I want to watch it now.

    Great readings on the characters, too. Sounds like a show with great character development, and I do like how you say it is the most real show out there now. It has an actual moral dilemma, which is barely palpable only just because it is genuine.

    But… I just wince when you say “victim of the capitalist system,” of course. You might mean to say “reflection” or “bi-product” or “burp” or something. I mean, I disagree with you that capitalism results in a net loss for society — the past 100 years will show clearly the majority of increase of standard of living is a result of our economy. The human body is the most impressive organism on the planet, but even it gets the hiccups!

    That aside, the real problem is that you can’t ascribe agency to a social system. A social structure has results, outcomes, qualities… but it does not cognitively and transgressively act upon another. That would be like saying someone is a victim of “gambling”. Did gambling jump him in a alley? No, of course not… he entered into the system of gambling and lost.

    Walter lost. Okay… it happens. If everyone won all the time, they’d stop playing (not to say I’m talking high stakes – even just things like buying furniture… if everything were provided for everyone always, why take care of it? Why value anything? Why budget, save your money, or work harder (which means more production and higher standard of living overall) — it is the chance of failure that makes the pursuit of success happen!). “The dice will be sixes… why even roll?” That’s not living (but I digress).

    What is *interesting*, however… what captivates the audience is how he came back from his loss. His resiliency in becoming a man for his family again through any means, after falling on hard times, as you say — that sounds like what makes this the most American show on TV right now. I look forward to watching this show with perspective of the average American in this economy in mind.

    • James,

      It’s interesting that you bring up the gambling metaphor, because in the show that’s actually what Walt and Skylar use as their cover story. In order to explain their sudden wealth, as well as their recent marital problems, they start telling people Walt is a gambling junkie. So, your comparison, in that sense, isn’t that far off the mark. However, where the point you’re trying to make falls short is that unlike gambling, you can’t opt out of capitalism in our society. You’re forced to play the game. You can’t be forced to gamble, but in order to live in our society you have to earn a living one way or another. Granted, there are choices you can make to greatly cut your expenses and it’s possible to survive on a very small amount of money if you make some pretty extreme lifestyle choices, but generally speaking, people need to make money to exist day to day, and that means either allowing yourself to be exploited while working as a wage-slave, or to exploit others by becoming a capitalist. In this system, those are basically your only two options, except for committing a crime just so you can have your housing and meals paid for in jail. And a system like that, a system that forces people into one of those two terrible options, is a very bad system. The problem with your argument of “Walter lost… it happens” is that even if he won that spells bad news for the rest of society. Because successful capitalism sends ripples of ruin through society. That’s what Breaking Bad has been saying. The more Walter profits, the more damage he does to society. That’s capitalism.

      Also, you dice argument falls flat, too. It assumes that people will only work for financial gain, but that’s not true. Well, perhaps it’s true in regard to the kind of work we have to do under capitalism, but it’s not true generally speaking. Human beings LIKE to work. We like to build things, we’re creative, and we’re naturally cooperative beings. If anything goes against our basic nature, it’s capitalism, because it turns us away from our natural cooperative selves into a world based on competition for personal gain. And that’s really not what human beings were meant to be like, and I don’t think the species would have survived this long if we were naturally brutal and selfish. We’re TAUGHT to be that way, we’re not born that way. A society based on equality were everyone works for the mutual benefit of the whole is much closer to our true nature and potential, but we’re dragged down by systems of profit and exploitation. Those systems are what’s unnatural.

      All of this is just a long winded way of saying, it’s absolutely correct to say that Walter White is a victim of capitalism.

      • I agree whole heartily, except for the idea of the Capitalism is ordinarily communism! .(Assumed Meth is bad ,therefore a given.)
        The Idea of Utopia .
        My thought is that you can wish for better, the exhaust of life is the opposite of any idea ,light ,darkness ,good , evil on and on ,last time I checked you can with hard work and determination you can move out of the desert to America, land of choice . (although I agree for how long)
        Everyone will protect there interests even if it eventually means we need to work together.
        I will say at some point all people will have no option but to work together until the the exhaust of life says its time to do the opposite.
        By the way god I love this show , bottom line its inspiring.

  6. But, I’ll have to check this again after I watch it to see your readings of the intent in Walter vs. corporate actors, and the things like regret in his product (or regret in his “exploitation” perhaps you’d say even).

  7. Your analysis of WW’s motivation is definitely better than what I usually see (something like, “A good man under extreme circumstances makes the same choices that perhaps anyone would make” or the Manichean reading: “An ordinary person with hidden evil desires lurking in his soul”). I like the idea that it’s more about how he sees himself than what he’s actually accomplishing.

    The connection to capitalism makes some sense to me, although I’m not sure it’s as strong as you put it. Is capitalism responsible for all of Walter White’s suffering? (Apathetic students for instance? Regrets over a failed romance?) Maybe I’m missing the point.

    I see two ideas of family devotion in “Breaking Bad,” represented more or less by Walter and Skyler, the one who “has to protect this family from the one who protects this family.” Skyler’s devotion is closer to the traditional family than Walter’s. In fact, Walter’s preference for his family over other people is raw and radically removed from any tradition. There’s nothing moderating it at all. His idea of doing someone some good is hollow and materialistic.

    • Is capitalism responsible for Walt’s suffering? Yes, I think so. While things like apathetic students and failed romance might not be easily connectable, they are connectable nonetheless. Capitalist society sets up certain expectations, especially for middle-class people. It’s a brutally unfair system, but it provides the illusion that “anyone can make it big.” So, when reality hits and you don’t make it big, you feel cheated and angry. When you’re stuck in a classroom with kids who don’t care rather than changing the world with a billion dollar company you founded, it’s ultimately capitalism that’s providing the basis for Walt’s feelings of inadequacy. Under a system of equality, a system that doesn’t lie and tell everyone they can be potentially rich and famous, wouldn’t set up those expectations and desires. And in a system like that, everything would be radically different anyway. The kids in school would probably be more engaged and willing to learn because of a strong feeling in society to better the world, rather than just looking out for yourself. In those first couple episodes you get a strong sense that Walt feels like if he just had money he could fix his whole life from top to bottom, and remake his image into something people will respect, including himself. Of course, these desires are just illusions, but they manifest themselves in a very real way, and ultimately send Walt off on his course of self-destruction and the destruction of others.

  8. I really like your analysis. I think this helps me understand what has made this my favourite TV show ever. I have had increasing unease with the capitalist model since I realised it is assuming anything on Earth is a resource to be capitalised, if you can just grab it for a low enough price – or steal it. That theft of resources used to be called empire building, which set many of our nations on the road to the relative wealth they enjoy today. Of course the true price has yet to be paid.

    And Walt has admitted that empire building is really his thing.

    Anyone who can think that a rise in standards of living in capitalist societies over the last century and a half is some sort of proof of concept needs to develop a longer term outlook. Unfortunately we have trouble seeing our family beyond the next generation or two.

    • Thanks for the reply! I’m glad you like the piece, and I really like your point about raised standards of living in capitalist societies not being proof of that model’s success. Even if capitalist-imperialism does raise the standard of living for most people within a given country, which is debatable in and of itself, the fact of the matter is that that increased overall wealth is essentially stolen from other places around the world. The profit of imperialist nations is based on the exploitation and manipulation of the third world, and it’s a system that keeps many millions of people hopelessly trapped in extreme poverty. Walt is exactly like this.

  9. The main thing I disagree with is your association of what you call the “patriarchal” family with the evils of this world.

    The family has its form not because of capitalism but because, before all of our machines work was more gendered oriented, of necessity.

    I am not a primitivist, but I do think industrial technologies are the real evil of this world, not capitalism or socialism.

    Stable agrarian societies existed for millennia throughout the world.

    • Industrial technologies are just tools. The questions are: who owns them and profits from them, and what are they used for? Industrial technologies in the hands of the masses, directly, could be a great thing for humanity. The problem is when those technologies are used to generate profit for an elite class by exploiting workers. And patriarchy ties right in with that idea.

      • We have always had tools. Industrial technologies with their efficiency and scale represent a thorough break with earlier tools.

        The more we use these technologies, the more we become trapped by them. How for example, will we extricate ourselves from the fossil fuel economy that is literally burning up the world (did you ever think that the fossil fuel economy is literally powered by explosions?)?

        Furthermore, the idea of using industrial technologies to liberate the people from oppression is simply unworkable. By their very nature, our modern technologies require vast centralized corporate and governmental bureaucracies to gather the material and manpower to produce them, and then to market them to the populace.

        The speed and efficiency of such machines is literally inhuman, and all things in this world being connected by strict correspondences it should surprise no one that a society built on inhuman machines is itself increasingly inhuman.

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